I enjoy reading biographies and Mr. King is one of the better writers when documenting those periods of European History he chooses. He wrote a wonderful book about Brunelleschi, and now offers readers and even more ambitious work on Michelangelo and Pope Julius II. Many writers seem to often stray, and are too sweeping and inclusive of other persons and events that also took place during the time they are documenting. Mr. King gives enough information to keep his subjects and their pursuits in context without diluting the premise of his books.
The painting of the Sistine Chapel may seem like too well worn a subject for another book but the author dispels so many misconceptions about the events that were involved in this creation that his clarifications are worth the read on their own. The book also includes magnificent color plates and numerous black and white drawings that make the book all the more interesting. But the images add to the book, they do not act as a crutch for an author lacking information.
Did Michelangelo paint while lying on his back, the book answers that question by sharing a letter and diagram of Michelangelo that he penned himself sharing the manner by which he worked? Were the frescoed ceiling and vaults designed and painted by Michelangelo on his own, how long did the work really take, and how close did the work come to be handed over to another artist before its completion?
The author also demonstrates the influence and politics that were a daily part of working for The Vatican and this particular Pope. Mr. King will share the discovery and rapid rise of the artist Raphael who was painting at The Vatican simultaneously with Michelangelo. Bramante who was to initiate the rebuilding of St. Peter's Cathedral was also always present, in the shadows or in front, scheming or openly attempting to influence who would gain specific commissions for the Pope. And there is also the famous/infamous Savonarola who held great influence with the artist who painted the 12,000sf ceiling at a time when approving of the doomed holy man could mean death to those who shared his thoughts.
I have no way of knowing which person or architectural marvel Mr. King will turn to next. He explores several fascinating people in this work that would fill several additional books. I only hope that he continues to produce these eminently readable and enjoyable studies of History and her participants.
on 28 January 2003
Ahhh.....remember Charlton Heston as Michelangelo- all alone, on his back- painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel? Well, in this very informative and enjoyable book, Ross King quickly clears up those two major misconceptions. Michelangelo was not on his back: the scaffolding was placed 7 feet below the ceiling. Michelangelo painted while standing, reaching overhead, with his back arched. And, he had plenty of help in his glorious enterprise. Michelangelo took on the project with a great deal of reluctance. What he had really been excited to do was the job Pope Julius II had originally had in mind: the sculpting of the Pope's burial tomb. For Michelangelo considered himself to be a sculptor rather than a painter. Though originally trained, in his early teens, as a painter, he had devoted himself almost entirely to sculpting in the nearly 20 year period which had elapsed between his training and receiving the summons from Pope Julius II to begin work on the Sistine Chapel. Additionally, Michelangelo had never before painted a fresco, which is a very tricky process involving painting on wet plaster. (He had once started preparatory work on a fresco project where he was supposed to go "head to head" with Leonardo. Alas, that project never came to fruition!) So, Michelangelo did what any sensible person would do...he hired as assistants artists who had prior experience doing frescoes. Thus begins the fascinating tale of the four year project. Along the way we learn of Renaissance rivalries- Michelangelo had once taunted Leonardo da Vinci in public for having failed in his attempt to cast a giant bronze equestrian statue in Milan. Leonardo gave as good as he got: "He claimed that sculptors, covered in marble dust, looked like bakers, and that their homes were both noisy and filthy, in contrast to the more elegant abodes of painters." There was also the rivalry between Raphael and Michelangelo. The two artists couldn't have been more different- Raphael...handsome, charming, well-mannered and sociable (and a notorious connoisseur of beautiful women); Michelangelo...squat-nosed and surly, pathologically suspicious, seemingly uninterested in anything unrelated to his art. Raphael was at work on a fresco in the Pope's library, in another section of the Vatican, at the same time Michelangelo was working on the Sistine Chapel. One of the most interesting parts of the book occurs when the ceiling is halfway completed. All the scaffolding was removed so that the Pope could examine the work to date. This was also the first time that Michelangelo could get an idea of how the ceiling would look from the floor of the chapel. He is said to have been shocked at how small his figures looked, and when he started work on the second half of the ceiling he decreased the number of figures portrayed but increased their size by an average of four feet. It is also said that at this time Raphael, realizing how much more public and prestigious the Sistine Chapel project was than his own assignment in the Pope's library, lobbied to be allowed to do the second half of the ceiling. Of course, that never came to pass. Mr. King manages to incorporate an amazing amount of material into such a relatively small book: we learn about the complexities of fresco painting, especially on a concave surface; what materials the pigments were made of and the processes involved in making them; Michelangelo's lack of interest in adding realistic landscapes to the backgrounds of his compositions (he considered landscape painting to be an inferior form of art); his sense of humor- in one of the tableaus he has a character "making the fig" at another character (an Italian equivalent of giving someone the finger). The author also shows us the difficult relationships Michelangelo had with his father and brothers (they were always hitting him up for money or trying to get him to use his influence to get them jobs, etc.). And, as a change-of-pace, punctuating the entire book we have Pope Julius II, famous for his bad temper and foul mouth, going out on various military campaigns to punish wayward Italian city-states...and dragging along his reluctant cardinals! Somehow, Mr. King manages to weave all this together into a seamless, smoothly flowing narrative. This is an excellent book, both educational and entertaining!
"Michelangelo And The Pope's Ceiling" tells the stories of the creation of Michelangelo's magnus opus and of the world in which he worked. It is a combination of biography, technical manual and social and art history.
The biography tells us of Michelangelo's life. We meet his family and gain an understand his training, his financial standing and his artistic history. I was surprised to learn that he was, primarily, a sculptor who was hired to build the tomb of Pope Julius II before being diverted into the ceiling project. The popular image of Michelangelo laying on his back while painting the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel is repeatedly dismissed.
The technical manual introduces the reader to the techniques employed in the creation of a fresco. The explanations of the then existing practices relating to the drawing of the sketches on paper for transfer to the wet plaster and the array and qualities of the pigments available make fascinating reading. The author brings the reader into the team of artists and assistants who made this work happen. The growth of the picture across the ceiling is shown not only as expansion from side to side, but also as the growth of an artist who adjusted his techniques as he viewed his work from the perspective of its admirers.
The social history places Michelangelo's work in the world of his patron, Pope Julius II. Julius was an amazing character, a warrior Pope who left his mark, not in the sanctity of his Church but in the magnificence of its churches.
The art history walks the reader across the scenes of the ceiling. I have never been to Rome, but after reading this book it seems that one could spend weeks trying to take the whole ceiling in. The author also places this work in its artistic context, both in how it advanced what went before and how it became the standard for so much which followed. Even for one with my minimal familiarity with Renaissance history and art, this book is fascinating. I think that you will enjoy it also.
In his masterful and well researched portrayal of Michelangelo's four-year (1508-1512) effort to fill the 12,000 square foot, vaulted ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with new frescoes for Pope Julius II, Ross King examines and places in context the known details of Michelangelo's life, the images he includes in the frescoes, and his relationship with Pope Julius II, called the "terrifying Pope." Michelangelo had tried to avoid this commission. He was a sculptor, not a painter, and Pope Julius II had angered him by postponing his commission to build the Pope's tomb after Michelangelo had bought all the marble.
Unpracticed in the difficult technique of fresco, he accepted the commission reluctantly. Illustrating stories from Genesis in the brightest and most costly pigments available, he created powerful visions of a terrifying and vengeful God in twelve panels, which depict stories of crime and punishment, prophets crying in the wilderness, and doomed sinners facing hanging, beheading, flood, and plague. Halfway through his commission, Michelangelo decided that his earliest, most tumultuous panels were too "busy," with too many figures painted too small, and he changed his style significantly. Beginning with the famous Creation of Adam, he painted simpler, more powerful designs, with larger figures, dramatically foreshortening and contorting them. God, who appears fully robed in classical attire in the early panels, becomes far more vigorous, muscular, and "human" in the later panels, appearing with his chest bare, his poses foreshortened. In his last depictions, he appears to "tumble down" toward the viewer from the ceiling.
Full of fascinating, memorable details, King's text tells how Michelangelo constructed the scaffold for the fresco (which did not require him to lie on his back), how his first panel was ruined by the build-up of salts and efflorescence and six weeks' labor had to be laboriously chipped away, how a child in one panel is "making the fig" (an obscene gesture),and how the fingers of God and Adam at the Creation are not the work of Michelangelo or of his assistants but complete restorations. A "map" of the ceiling allows the reader to locate particular details, though the colored pictures of the ceiling itself, reproduced almost in its entirety, are extremely small.
When the ceiling was completed in 1512, the world was dumbstruck, according to Vasari, and Michelangelo's figures were said to surpass those of the ancient Greeks. Never before had the human form been used with such "astonishing invention and aplomb...or with the brute force of Michelangelo's naked titans." Writing with enthusiasm and insight, in addition to careful scholarship, King tells the intriguing human story of this artwork, which is as fresh and relevant today as it was when it was painted almost six hundred years ago. Mary Whipple
I have much the same comments on this book as I made in my last review of King’s later book on Leonardo and the Last Supper: the present volume, too, deserves five stars for the extremely informative telling of the history of how the Sistine Ceiling was made and for the excellent analysis of the work. But, as in the later book, there is also a mass of information about matters that are less relevant to the story: very detailed accounts of the politics of the period and the many wars in which the warrior Pope Julius II was involved. And while the rivalry between Michelangelo and Rafael and the contrast between their styles is relevant, the detailed account of Rafael’s life and works does not strike me as being warranted. There is also a great deal about Michelangelo’s relationship with his father and his brothers. But all of these unnecessary details are very well told.
on 5 October 2008
Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling
I wasn't sure what to expect from this book. I am more interested in the history of the time than in the painting or the artist, but whatever it was that I expected I wasn't disappointed.
The author weaves the story around the central characters of both Michelangelo and Pope Julius, but neither dominate the book. Where appropriate, Mr King brings in other important characters of the time, particularly the (apparently more likeable) Raphael. All this is set against the backdrop of the warring city states and the rollercoaster ride of the papal authority.
This is not a dry narrative about Michelangelo or, indeed, the renaissance. Instead it feels more like a novel which draws you in, and, by the end of the book, I felt I knew more about the main protagonists and their personalities than is the case with many historical biographies.
That said, I will agree with some of the other reviewers in that, although the painting itself was of less interest, the book would have been enhanced with more illustrations.
on 13 February 2014
Having immensely enjoyed reading Brunelleschi's Dome by the same author, I knew this bestseller about Michelangelo would not disappoint. Through thorough research, Ross King exposes truths that rectify many prevailing myths.
on 29 June 2015
I am still reading this book, and finding it absolutely fascinating. It brings the whole culture of Italy in the early 1500s vividly to life, and the relationship between the war-loving Pope and his artists is wonderfully clearly portrayed. The book thoroughly deserves its place on the Headmaster of Eton's 'must-read' list.
on 10 February 2016
Every praise for the DVDs themselves. Excellent author and narration. However, the plastic box looked as though it had been stepped on with a high heeled shoe and was damaged on both sides, making the box difficult to open and close without it falling apart. It couldn't have happened in transit as it was well packed and the cardboard package undamaged. I don't recall that being mentioned on the website. I would complain but this item is so difficult to get hold of and is only available in the US. If it were from the UK and an easily obtainable item I would have demanded a replacement.
on 17 March 2013
This is a great book if you wish to go beyond the surface and beyond rumour and speculation to discover the real story behind this magnificant work of art. There is a wealth of technical and historical detail together with compelling descriptions of the people involved. Another superb book from Ross King.